When I was 16, I was invited to a dinner hosted by members of the infamous Unification Church. When I was 18, I took a Scientology E-Meter test in exchange for borrowing a cell phone so I could call home. When I was 21, I dated a boy whose family evangelized self-actualization workshops. At 23, I worked two years at a tech company that seemed to sustain itself on the CEO’s magnetism, and projected optimism about “the future.”
Now at 25, you could say I’ve lived most of my life immersed in—and fascinated by—cults.
This connection is part of the reason I was drawn to the recently released documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, a thoroughly fascinating look at the inner psychology of the Church of Scientology. The documentary, produced by HBO, shows how L. Ron Hubbard’s charisma and influence, combined with the American desire for self-determination and social justice, helped sustain an organization that is today considered as treacherous as it is wealthy. Praised at Sundance, the film features candid interviews with former members of the Church, including prominent actors, Oscar-winning directors, and the Church’s powerful second-in-command to the Church’s leader, David Miscavige. The documentary also highlights the financial toll cults take, not only the rich and famous, but also on the less visible and arguably more vulnerable members who make up its base.
As an exposé on the Church, it is an excellent film. Famous for its profile members as much for lurid allegations of abuse, the financial consequences of Scientology don’t always receive much attention. The antics of Tom Cruise and company serve as something of a smokescreen hiding the negative effects of indoctrination Scientology takes on its non-famous converts. When we think about Xenu and the many other zany beliefs Scientology espouses, it’s easy to cast judgment on individuals, assuring ourselves that we would never be so stupid as to be fooled by such stories.
But this is not a fair assessment of the problem: In fact, indoctrination is tantamount to slow, methodical abuse. And just like other forms of abuse, often by the time you realize what what’s happening, it’s too late. Cults like Scientology initially seem to share universal values. They ask you to just keep yourself open to possibilities. Slowly, they keep pushing until, finally, they’ve established their way of thinking, first as the better alternative, and then as the new normal.
I should know—it almost happened to me. When my college boyfriend’s family talked about Landmark Education, they refused to tell me what it was, saying only that it was a “learning experience.” Any information on the organization’s official site was seemed confusing, almost strategically obfuscating. Bearing some resemblances to Scientology, Landmark billed itself as as a series of classes costing $500 for each three-day seminar.
The classes promoted “breakthroughs” and self-actualization, common buzzwords used by cultic communities, and bring in millions in revenue. They also utilize a diluted offshoot of the Erhard Seminars Training movement (EST), popular in the 1970s but since widely discredited. The Forum’s techniques establish groupthink, restrictive rules, and enforce discomfort that often led to tearful confessions and the euphoric testimonials
While the Church of Scientology has a far more sophisticated business model featuring a multi-layered menu of expensive tests, counseling, and training sessions, the two systems maintain a competing relationship. Erhard himself admitted to some crossover to Hubbard in his practices: “In EST we use variations on some of the Scientology charts, and as a result the terminology overlaps a bit.” (And why wouldn’t he—the Church that is alleged to have close to $1 billion in liquid assets.)
Both Scientology and Landmark also share similar recruiting methods, using its members as de facto evangelizers. In conversations about Landmark, my boyfriend’s mother repeatedly put me on the spot, forcing me to defend my beliefs. Suddenly I felt like the closed-minded one, arguing with a woman who had welcomed me to her family with open arms.
When it came to Landmark, she had an answer for each of my hesitations. I lost sleep. I was under impossible pressure not to disappoint. My hair began to fall out; I had a bald spot the size of a quarter. Finally, I agreed to go to a Landmark “Completion” ceremony, believing it to be a graduation ceremony for her and her peers. In reality, the ceremony was a workshop where those who had “completed” their training were supposed to bring in uninitiated friends and family, and put pressure on them to join the Forum.
That’s when I realized just how deep the indoctrination had reached. This wonderful, intelligent woman had been a part of the Landmark “community” since 1988. She credited her bravery and personal successes to its methods. At this point, questioning its motives meant questioning her own values, her own sensory and emotional perception. How does one explain to someone who they have spent years of their life and thousands of their hard-earned dollars on something that amounts to a cult?
Today, documentaries like Going Clear are crucial for pushing conversations about cults back into the mainstream. This is not about condescension. Indoctrination can, and does, happen to all of us in various ways. At this point, it is imperative we ask not what people gain by participating in movements like Landmark or Scientology, but what is lost when they try to leave.
Scientology members, for example, are expected to work toward their enlightenment, and pay for it. Costs begin at a modest $15 for counseling and auditing (a type of Scientology version of confession led by an auditor manning an E-Meter). Over the course of the training, however, members can expect to spend thousands. If correctly indoctrinated, members may actually want to spend this money. In Going Clear, a former member admits she was conditioned to believe everything good that happened to her was due to her improvement as a member of the Church, and everything bad that happened was her fault.
The church also maintains several humanitarian programs, which help provide free labor, the acquisition of real estate, and manage donations that are estimated to have totaled at least $250 million since 2006. Like Landmark, Scientology’s volunteers are compensated very little, if anything, for their contributions to the Church. The elite Sea Org members are paid roughly forty cents an hour because they truly believe in the Church’s mission.
Indoctrination, in this way, is self-sustaining. To not believe would mean losing something very tangible. Organizations like these are in this way self-policed, the same way a simple game like Truth or Dare is intrinsically enforced by groupthink. Organizations are acutely aware of this, using groupthink, itself, is a methodology.
I admire the strength of defectors and ex-members of cults more than I do the ones who say they could never be part of something so strange. They understand what it feels like to be forced to reassess their core beliefs and indeed their identity. They are also often the most self-critiquing, self-examining, and ultimately humbled because they understand, more acutely than others, the susceptibility and consequences of indoctrination. Luckily, unlike Scientology, Landmark does not exact retribution on members who don’t continue shelling out for continued classes. But for every organization that gets press for its manipulative practices, there are others like it slipping under the radar, seemingly harmless—until they aren’t.